Ten Years Schooled in Disasters: Philanthropy Emerges Top of the Class

In light of reaching the ninth year since Hurricane Katrina, the tenth year since the Indian Ocean tsunami, and the upcoming second anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, it was time to write the requisite anniversary article. The good news is that disaster philanthropy has evolved over the past ten years. We have implemented many of the lessons that we learned from these disasters. Here are ten lessons, philosophies, and innovations that came out of the philanthropic sector:

1. Philanthropy is a leader: Once thought as only a gap-filler or a convener, philanthropy's flexibility and ability to move quickly enhances every sector and often provides the glue for public-private partnerships. Community foundations, family foundations, and regional associations have proven to be leaders in both peacetime and in crisis.

2. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) was born: This is the first and only foundation dedicated to educating donors about disasters 365 days a year, and advising donors how to give more effectively to prevent and mitigate disasters as well as help communities recover in a timely fashion. The Center aims to serve as a way for likeminded donors to pool resources and create field of interest funds dedicated to fund specific issues related to disasters. (For the sake of full disclosure, CDP was co-founded by Eric Kessler of Arabella Advisors and me.)

3. The State of Disaster Philanthropy: For the first time, Foundation Center and CDP will collect philanthropic data on disaster giving by corporations, individuals, and foundations. We have always measured how many philanthropic dollars have been given out within the U.S. However, for the first time we will be accurately measuring disaster giving from the private sector.

4. Charity vs. smart philanthropy: When people see suffering on the television, they will immediately give to ameliorate their own suffering so that they can move on with their day. We will never change that, and it is a normal psychological phenomenon of shortsighted yet generous charitable giving. However, philanthropists have been educated and are now giving throughout the disaster cycle, and not just in the moment when it happens or when it is a focal point of media coverage. Unfortunately, while this has evolved, we have a long way to go. When Anderson Cooper moves on to cover a new story, viewers believe the disaster is over because they can no longer see it.

5. All donors are disaster givers: Donors are beginning to see that disaster giving is not separate from any other giving in which they are engaged. For instance, a family foundation that only gives to children did not want to give to Hurricane Sandy because disasters were not in their mission until they realized that building back a playground for children in Breezy Point did indeed fall in line with their mission. We're all in the business of disasters, and all grant-makers are disaster grant-makers. As disasters impact all dimensions of a funder's mission, to simply ignore them can setback millions of dollars of investment over time.

6. Resilience is confusing, it's not just you: Resilience means different things to different people. It can span from human resilience to acute and chronic problems in communities to regional issues, as well as preparedness and mitigation. It is no longer simply about recovery. Philanthropy is now part of a conversation that does not simply include the population, but also infrastructure and homeland security. Philanthropy is also educating corporations and governing infrastructure about what helps individuals and families be more resilient. In turn, Homeland Security has educated philanthropy about risk reduction and preparedness.

7. Corporations and corporate foundations are no longer following the leader: They are branching out beyond the American Red Cross, building consortia, forming public-private partnerships, and looking to collaborate with universities, governmental agencies, the United Nations, family foundations, and think tanks to invest in projects that reduce risk and mitigate disasters. Philanthropy isn't just taking care of people on the ground. It works with federal, state, and local entities in order to establish how money is coming down. In this way, it can lead and supplement the government as needed.

8. Someone's trash is not necessarily someone else's treasure: Through great messages from entities such as USAID and CIDI, we have learned that in-kind giving is less helpful unless particular items are specifically requested. Even the Daily Show is on to this. [LINK]

9. Philanthropy has impacted policy: Philanthropy has not merely worked with organizations to change the Stafford Act. Unlike policy, which typically functions reactively following a disaster, corporations, private foundations, and individuals have learned how to proactively create networks when disasters are not happening. This allows them to easily move into action when a disaster strikes.

10. Evacuation vs. Resettlement: While I am proud of local and state governments for mastering the art of evacuation, it may be up to philanthropy to continue to lead the way in urban planning, adaptation, and the resettlement of communities in harm's way. This is not often discussed by governments and may take innovative solutions from social scientists, planners, and communication experts to understand how to get people home and resettled or, alternatively, resettled in other places in the most humane and economically efficient way.

Recently, I watched a movie set in the '80s that featured all of the main characters smoking in his or her office. This would be unheard of in the year 2014: cultural and policy changes are inevitable, but they do take time. Practitioners and policymakers can learn much from the visionary and action-oriented philanthropic sector. These small and mighty entities can lead the way when bureaucracy and red tape halt the creative action of bigger structures, and they encourage everyone to think and work outside the box.